Republicans Can Solve Their Digital Problem By Throwing Money At It

ByAli Akbar

It is easy to get caught in the weeds when one is Monday-morning quarterbacking. Bloggers who know how to throw together a custom Wordpress install were eager to trot out their tweets against Mitt Romney’s failed ORCA mobilization platform, while other web strategists were more than happy to explain how they would’ve run the campaign's digital operations. Then there’s the Romney alumni. They still they think they got digital right.

They’re all playing their parts in this silly game of politics where everyone else is wrong and they are the only ones who are correct. Where we must advance is inside those slivers of correctness. After all, isn’t that science? Test much, fail a lot, learn something.

Snipers don’t fire until they’re ready with the kill shot. They go through an elaborate system of measuring to ensure the bullet will hit the target. Some argue, wrongly, that the GOP ought not to talk about its digital strategy.Here’s the thing: Opponents already know the GOP position on digital. It's somewhere between "We're losing" and "We suck."

It’s a good thing many of us participated in CampaignTech, #polichat, a weekly Twitter-based chat launched by Bill Murphy that tackles serious digital quandaries for all to see and participate in, Blog Bash, New Media Exchange, and the new Empower Action Group.

Our successes and failures, like our organizing, must largely be done in the open. And that’s going to take money.

After the election, I sat down with senior members of the major GOP committees and something struck me — they wanted outside advice. “I know we’re getting it wrong,” told me one lead. Each of them talked about how their bosses were ready to experiment and back their projects with hard dollars. The NRCC, NRSC, RNC, and RSLC are “getting it.”

Another exciting development seems to be that there isn’t a bad comment about any of those under consideration to become the first chief technical officer of the Republican National Committee. None of these capable operatives are going to take the position without a commitment of confidence and of dollars.

This digital victory isn’t a success in our outcome so it’s easy to overlook, but it is an infrastructural improvement. Ironically, that means Romney's greatest digital successes were made early on, in the primary and not actually by Romney's digital team. The campaign made the digital director a senior-level position (showing confidence) and committed to spending unprecedented money on its internet operations. These decisions will benefit all campaigns going forward. Because certainly the wasted ad dollars, the failed or non-existent apps, and the awkward web design will not.

Influencing the top decision-makers is often the toughest task. That's when you need the funding. And it's likely that we're going to spend untold amounts of money trying to “solve” our big data and digital problem. But if experience has taught me anything, it’s that it's not about finding a solution this go-around as much as finding out where we are. Dollars will be spent foolishly, but in the end we’ll at least know what not to do and have a new breed of operatives with valuable digital experience.

Some, mostly conservative outside groups and their connected operatives, are ticked about Karl Rove and the data map being built. Getting started is more important than getting it correct in politics. Once it’s started, we can fix it.

It's a shame that politics doesn't operate like the private sector. This is a reality many of us come to eventually accept, and then we become steady advocates for change from within. I was once a fresh young web designer eager to temporarily help my party with its new media problem. I got stuck and soon realized changing the world took a little more time than I had first recognized. I realized that all the talent in the world wouldn't allow me to give the party what I wanted to gift it. I needed the higher-ups. Soon, those pioneers that came a couple of years before me became my greatest advocates, lining me up with contracts and introducing me to decision-makers. We changed the way Republicans and conservatives looked at the web and paved the way for industry web designers to enter our political space. Now the same must be done with big data, true analytics, and engagement applications.

Seeing a common theme? Getting the confidence and dollars are all that matter right now. Throwing money at the digital gap is far better than continuing to just wallow in how much we suck.